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16/08/2007 00:00:00

UK: The Law Explored: classification of drugs

Gary Slapper explores the complexities of English law in plain language

The Prime Minister recently, in light of recent evidence that certain
strains of cannabis can cause mental illness in some users, asked the
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to reconsider the
decision in 2004 to downgrade the drug from class B to class C. The
consultation on reclassifying cannabis is part of a review of the entire
UK drugs strategy. The problem is, the legal classification of drugs is
an exceptionally detailed business.

The classifications are laid out in schedules to the 1971 Act. Class C,
the lowest category, includes substances such as anabolic steroids;
class B, includes drugs such as amphetamines; and class A includes opium
and cocaine. The higher the class, the more serious the offence.

Such regulation of substances presents very tricky challenges to the law
for two main reasons:

First, the science on which the classifications are made is always
developing, as are the drugs themselves. During the last 100 years,
cannabis has gone from being legal to illegal, then graded as a
middle-ranking drug, then downgraded. Now it seems set to be re-graded
back to the middle bracket. Before 1977, when the law was changed, the
chemically-engineered drug Ecstasy was not unlawful.
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Second, social attitudes and political winds change. In the 17th
century, coffee houses were seen as dens of iniquity. Now the High
Street is clogged with them. The drug amphetamine sulphate (speed)
wasn’t seen as a degenerate or dangerous for much of last century. It
was taken as a pep by all sorts of people including soldiers, film stars
and housewives. Then policy changed and it became a controlled drug in 1964.

The way the law divides legal and illegal substances isn’t based
exclusively on pharmacological knowledge. It is too simplistic to see
illegal substances as bad and legal substances as generally good. One
only has to consider that alcohol has been responsible for over 300,000
deaths in the past 10 years. Caffeine has been clinically recognised as
more addictive than morphine. (As Milton Berle noted: “I had a friend
who drank twenty cups a day at work. He died last month, but a week
later he was still mingling in the company lounge”.)

The back story to the criminalisation of cannabis shows that it was not
universally seen as a health hazard. The Hague Convention of 1912 (an
international governmental agreement about opium), aimed to stop
organised crime from getting into the business of drugs distribution.
But while the use of drugs was commonly seen as a weakness or vice, it
was not seen as criminal. In 1914, the US passed legislation putting a
nominal tax on the supply of opium through pharmacies – once cent per
ounce. The aim of the law was simply to get drug distribution formally
recorded and registered; it didn’t make consumption illegal.

In Britain, the Dangerous Drugs Act 1932 said that “any extract or
tincture of Indian hemp” – in other words, marijuana - was a substance
whose manufacture, import and export should be prohibited unless licensed.

It wasn’t until 1937 in the US that the first major and dedicated
legislation on cannabis was introduced. It only became federal law after
the legislature credulously accepted evidence such as the virulently
racist contributions of Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal
Bureau of Narcotics. Mr Anslinger contended that most crime was being
committed by "coloureds" with big lips, luring white women with
"voodoo-Satanic" music (jazz) and marijuana.

The legislation was promoted by the Bureau of Narcotics, which was keen
to expand its areas of operation. The law was passed without substantial
debate. In the Congressional hearings in April and May 1937 (in a
committee of the legislature), the representative of the American
Medical Association, Dr William C. Woodward, challenged the Bureau’s
contentions that marijuana was harmful to health and in widespread use
among children; he asked for the evidence behind such claims but he was
given no answers.

Today, there are various views on where to draw the line of legality on
intoxicants and mind-altering substances. Opinions range from advocacy
of a prohibition on all substances to advocacy of unrestricted
legalisation. Perhaps the only sort of statement that would attract
universal acceptance is that of the rapper Eminem: “Never take Ecstasy,
beer, Bacardi, weed, Pepto Bismol, Vivarin, Turns, Tagamet, HB, Xanax,
and Valium in the same day. It makes it difficult to sleep at night.”

Professor Gary Slapper is Director of the Centre for Law at The Open

Author: Times OnLine via UKCIA

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